Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Two trappers holding skins © Photo submitted by Dale Klemme

Trapping is more about family time than furs for Klemme.
Photo submitted by Dale Klemme

August 2012

Trapping memories

Time on the river makes me reminisce.

Dale Klemme

Sometimes it's hard to understand why we do some of the things we do. Perhaps, we just do them out of habit. But habits are not necessarily bad, except when they become obsessions, and then we may need to question their value.

I'm going to admit to something I do that will surprise many readers. I'm a trapper.

That's not really what this story is about, so those who are initially turned off by the idea of trapping, please read on. If you're inclined to write me in an attempt to convert me away from trapping, save the ink! I've been doing it too long to change.

I'm not exactly sure why every year at this time I take seven to 10 days to visit the Kiel Marsh and spend time doing hard work on the river. Clearly it is not for the money. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that my grandfather trapped on this same marsh starting in the mid-1920s.

As a matter of fact, Grandpa accumulated hundreds of acres of the marsh during The Great Depression and then sold that marsh land to the Department of Natural Resources in the 1960s. Grandpa was meticulous and kept detailed records of daily catches and prices paid for furs each year. Prices were better in 1940 than they are now. I'm sure I use up my annual revenue from furs in gas on my third trip "up to the river."

In our family, as soon as you were old enough to be out in a boat, you got a trapping license so that an additional 75 traps could be set. I believe at one point my grandmother even had a license, though in her 84 years or so she never had a driver's license.

Trapping may have been an obsession with my grandfather, but it paid off and he figured out how to make some decent money at it in his lifetime.

Trapping for Grandpa was a pretty serious activity and by being around him I learned the trade well.

In the 1930s, Grandpa even made five one-man boats with reverse oars so you could face the direction you were rowing. I still use these boats today.

I first went trapping when I was in sixth grade. It was one of those rite of passage things. The first year of trapping, I was to sit on a wood crate in one of those boats and watch Grandpa do his thing. Since I wasn't allowed to miss school, I had to be on the river by 6 a.m. holding a flashlight so Grandpa could check the traps.

My father also trapped but for him it was a habit and not an obsession. Dad trapped because he just enjoyed being on the river. My dad and I spent a good number of years on the river after my grandfather passed away. We made time to be together. Sometimes we were on the river, other times in the workshop on the farm processing the furs. Other times we played cards and drank beer.

As my father was dealing with cancer for the second time, his energy level declined, but he would still find the strength to go to the river with me when the weather was decent. I remember getting out of the boats and having lunch in the sun on a grassy spot my family called "Mupps Landing." My dad would then take a short nap before we continued on for the day.

I wouldn't say my dad was an outwardly emotional guy. But the last year he was able to go out on the river, I remember being in my truck preparing to return to Prairie du Chien. While I was still in the yard, my dad stood at the workshop door, waved and tears were streaming down his face. I got out of the truck; we held each other and cried, not saying a thing to each other except, "Thanks." He passed away soon after.

My two boys have since gone trapping with me. One of the first years the three of us went out on opening day. I backed the boat trailer to the water and they pushed the boat out onto the river holding onto the rope. Unfortunately, the other end of the rope was not tied to the boat. After we stopped laughing, we realized the boat was in the middle of the river. We went to a neighbor who was equally amused and allowed us to use his boat to retrieve ours.

We laughed but my grandfather would have had a fit.

I also recall the silliness of the three of us in different boats, clustered together in the middle of the marsh trying to listen to the end of a Badgers game on a small transistor radio, which was total static. Someone won by kicking a field goal with no time left, but we couldn't understand which team it was.

So, as I began this story, I admitted that I'm not at all sure as to why I go trapping. But one thing I do know for sure is that while I'm on the river, I do miss my dad and grandfather. Maybe that's reason enough.

Dale Klemme writes from Prairie du Chien.